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Advice for students on ICT4D programmes…


I’ve just had a great question posed to me by Brooke Kania: “I was just wondering, what are you looking for in students who are coming out of IDEV or ICT4D programs – what do you think the field needs from academic training? What advice would you give to aspiring ICT4D professionals?”.  The question is easy; the answer is not!  Fueled by a couple of very good glasses of Chianti, let me have a go at responding.  Here then are the ten things I would look for, and also some reflections as to why:

  • A willingness to cross boundaries.  The great thing about ICT4D is that it is not (yet) a specific discipline, but brings together people from many different backgrounds.  Exciting things happen at the edges!  Get a computer scientist and a philosopher talking together, and great things can happen.  The only trouble is that most academic ‘life’ is now about becoming the global expert in a tiny field of academic enquiry, and despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, old disciplinary boundaries remain strong!
  • Understanding the real needs of users.  Far too many ICT4D projects are invented by academics who have little clue about what the real needs of users actually are, and they are then surprised that the projects fail!  In part, this reflects the tyranny of the one year Master’s programme or three-year PhD, that limits the potential for a researcher to go into the field, really discover what would then make a difference to the lives of poor people, and then work with them to develop technologies that can really serve their interests.
  • Humility.  The Academy is all too often about ‘experts’ and people who claim to ‘have all the answers’.  In my experience, that is the death of enquiry and exploration.  There is much truth in the statement that “the more I know, the more I realise how little I know”.  Interestingly, I think I have met more ‘bright’ people outside universities than I have within them!  Far too often, academics create a language of obfuscation, to prevent others from understanding how ignorant they really are!
  • Being technically sound. ICT4D is fundamentally about technology – not necessarily in an instrumentalist way, but it is definitely concerned with technology, both how it is shaped by society, and also how it shapes society.  It is therefore essential that everyone working in the field of ICT4D does indeed have some technical grasp of technology.  That does not mean the impossible, in other words that everyone must understand all the relevant technologies, but it does mean that we should all have some pertinent technical expertise.  Thank goodness that  I learnt to programme in Fortran as a student!
  • A focus on really understanding ‘development’.  This is difficult, very difficult.  There are many definitions of what development is about, but anyone working in the field of ICT4D must address this question in their own way.  For me, development is about addressing the appalling inequalities that exist in our societies, and this is something very, very different from the hegemonic view that development is actually mainly about economic growth.  Capitalist economic growth can never eliminate poverty, and the sooner we abandon this misguided nonsense the sooner the world’s poor and marginalised people will be able to live the lives to which they aspire.
  • Get some real ‘development’ experience!  This is tricky for a student, but it is really impossible to understand the challenges and intricacies of ‘development’, however we define it, unless we have experienced it practically on the ground.  For some 20 years I did research and taught about development, but I never worked for a development agency, the private sector, or civil society organisation in that time.  In six months working for a bilateral donor agency, I learnt more about the practice of development than I did in most of my previous research on the subject!
  • Recognition that ICT4D is a moral, rather than a technical agenda.  This is closely linked to the above point, but I think it is different.  ICT4D should be about the normative – what should be – rather than what actually is.  Academics are generally quite good about describing what exists, but far too few go beyond this to suggest what they think should happen in the light of their analyses .  This is irresponsible!  Academics are hugely privileged, and they abrogate the trust placed in them by society if they do not use their research to make the world a better place.  They can only do this by having a vision for what the world could be like, and then engaging in political action to help shape that world.
  • An ability to engage in critical analysis.  This should lie at the heart of all academic enquiry, but all too often it doesn’t!  Far too much academic research repeats the obvious, albeit dressing it up in grandiose terms.  If we want to explain or understand a phenomenon, we have to keep asking the question “why?”.  I read so many papers that fail to do this!  If the interviews, questionnaires, or experiments that are undertaken do not seek to say why something is observed, then they remain purely descriptive and fail to add to our real understanding.  If you are a social scientist, just look at the questions asked in interviews, focus groups or questionnaires.  There will usually be many “what?”, “where?”, “when” or “who?” questions, but far fewer “how?” questions, and even fewer “why?” questions!  If we do not ask “why?”, we fail really to move knowledge forward.
  • Freedom to fail!  Far too much academic work is about getting students to regurgitate accepted truths – especially the opinions of those who teach them!  What we do not seem to allow students is the opportunity to experiment and fail.  I tend to think that people generally learn more from their mistakes than they do from their successes.  So, my advice would be to try something new, and not worry about the risk of failing.  That is where true innovation comes from.  In job interviews, I often tend to ask people about one of their failures, and then get them to think about what they learnt from it.  Those who claim never to have failed, don’t come up to the mark – especially in my book!
  • Be a good team player. It was difficult to think of a tenth piece of advice – there is so much that could be said.  However, I am convinced that ICT4D is about good team work.  None of us have all the necessary skills, and so if we are going to develop appropriate solutions, we must be able to work effectively together.  Far too much academic work is now about individual success – and we have lost the collective enterprise that so inspired me as a young academic.  Wisdom, scholarship and development are above all collective enterprises, and we need to embark on them together.

So, Brooke, I hope this gives you some ideas of my thinking right now.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not a tirade against the Academy.  Far from it.  Universities are a hugely precious element in our societies, and I value them enormously.  It is just, I fear, that too many institutions and individual academics have lost their way, and have become merely another tool in the hands of those who do not want us to be free.  Ultimately, it is hugely difficult for those committed to implementing real change in our societies to be based within universities; I have tremendous respect for those who remain fighting for their integrity and sanity.  ICT4D is about engagement, not just about writing papers in academic journals that few people will ever read.  Those who determine our research agendas should be the world’s poor and marginalised.

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‘Student’ protests and political process in the UK


Being at the rally in Trafalgar Square today, supposedly against the proposed cuts in higher education, made me reflect on several aspects of the contemporary political process in the UK:

  • First, it is great to see so many UK students for once standing up for something that they see as being a cause worth fighting.  For far too long, many students here, unlike some of their peers elsewhere, seem to have been apathetic and lazy, unwilling to engage in any form of radical political protest, with the majority preferring instead to enjoy the good life associated with undertaking a minimal amount of academic work and a maximum amount of partying.  There is an irony here, though, as a young person on the train sitting next to me on the way home said “They are only looking after their own interests, in’t they. They can afford to!”
  • To gain groundswell political support, it is essential to have a simple message that people can sign up to – even if their own various interpretations of that message are different.  It is easy to unite people around a simple theme of complaining against ‘cuts’ that will affect them, but this hides the complexities surrounding the restructuring of UK universities and higher education.
  • At the heart of today’s protests were people intent on challenging the police – seeking to provoke them into violent retaliation.  At least whilst I was there, it was remarkable how calm the police remained against what many of them must have seen as being unprovoked and unfair abuse.  What struck me most about this was that many of those hurling the abuse chose to hide their identities through masks and hooded clothing, whilst individual police officers were fully identifiable by their ‘numbers’.  I do not want to be seen as an apologist for the police, and of course there have been cases where individual police officers have over-stepped the mark, but there is a real irony here in that protestors in the UK are indeed able to protest – peacefully – because, in general, the police have tried to be even handed in maintaining order and permitting people of all political persuasions to express an opinion.
  • I was amazed at how little anyone in the crowd seemed really to care about what, to me, matters most, the destruction of university based research excellence in the UK!  I have written at length elsewhere about this, but the protests convinced me even more of the importance of differentiating between ‘universities’ and higher education.  We need fundamentally to restructure UK higher education, and this should involve a very dramatic reduction in the number of students going to ‘universities’.  Instead, we should provide high quality and appropriate training and ‘education’, to fit all young people for the sorts of employment that they will subsequently enter.  Let’s create outstanding opportunities for young people to gain the skills and education that they need – but let’s not pretend that the institutions in which this takes place are universities.
  • And yes, of course, universities should be free for those able to benefit from the research-led opportunities that they provide, and for students who are committed to exploring the boundaries of knowledge diligently, rigorously and with enthusiasm!
  • Finally, I find it amazing that according to the Guardian, Vince Cable, “the cabinet minister in charge of tuition fees, said today he was prepared to abstain in a key vote on the government’s policy if that was what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decided to do as a group. The business secretary said he was prepared to take the unprecedented step of not backing his own proposals for the sake of party unity”. How can the Secretary of State responsible for the introduction of increased tuition fees not vote in favour of them?  He should surely resign forthwith if that really is his view.

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